Lord Skelmersdale (Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions; Conservative)
I apologise for that confusion; it is a rather difficult area. Those few noble Lords who have taken an occasional interest in this Bill may well have wondered what was going on yesterday. It was rather like a pugilistic event between the two Front Benches for most of the time. We had hoped that, following our debate on Monday, the Minister would have withdrawn this amendment, but he chose not to do so. As was noticed yesterday, we spent some considerable time in Committee debating further what could have been transferred to the more productive environment of the DWP consulting in earnest with those who have briefed us. On consultation, I, like my noble friend Lord Lucas, was delighted by the Minister's response to the previous amendment.
We accept the Minister's assurances that the department will now consult further and hope that that consultation will be broadly based, and not simply with those who agree, wholly or in part, with what the Minister certainly gave me the impression were the Government's settled views. I also hope that the Minister will brief us and colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches in good time before Report stage commences. That is shortly after the Summer Recess. My noble friend Lady Noakes said on Monday that the consultation document did not make it clear that the Government were consulting on such a sweeping power as the one contained in Amendment No. 130EW. The word "draconian" springs to mind. In response, the Minister said that,
"it is pretty explicit in paragraph 1.38 of the consultation document".—[Hansard, 14/7/08; col. 1087.]
That confused me, for one. I think the Minister intended to refer to paragraph 1.40, not 1.38. That paragraph says:
"The Government ... proposes to take a regulation-making power which is sufficiently broad-based to enable amendments to be made to ensure that the Regulator has effective powers to deal with ... innovation in the market, and to make sure that the effect of the powers is clear to all the parties in the market".
The consultees would, in my view, have concluded rightly that what the Government would legislate for bore some relation to the specific issues discussed in the remaining 40 pages of the consultation document. Instead, Amendment No. 130EW takes the widest possible power to make the largest possible number of changes, potentially with infinite retrospective effect. This is part of the problem with the consultation, and one that the Government simply must address. The power needs to be much more tightly drawn.
The Bill depends crucially on consensus that the contents of Part 1 are the right way forward. The amendment that we have been debating for, it seems, days—although I suppose it is hours—is not, strictly, part of that consensus. The high-handed way that the Government are handling their own amendments to this Bill is not conducive to consensus holding on the wide range of concerns that we still have about Part 1. In particular, we are far from satisfied that the personal accounts project can be delivered on time at an acceptable cost to members and without taxpayer subsidy. We will return to those issues on Report. Our enthusiasm for consensus at that stage will bear a direct relationship to the way that the Government are prepared to address the outstanding issues. It would have been an act of good government for the Minister to have withdrawn his amendment so that his department could commence discussions on an open basis with all—I repeat, all—the interested parties. Instead, by pressing their amendment, the Government seek to go into any such discussions with the whip hand of having the amendment as part of the Bill. That, as I have said before, is a disgraceful way to legislate, especially as Ministers know in their heart of hearts—in fact, rather more than that, because the noble Lord has just said that he will consider favourably some of my noble friend's amendments—that what is being bludgeoned into the Bill today will be amended before it reaches the statute book.
We have thought long and hard about this. If we were to press Amendment No. 130EW to a Division today, we would run the risk of failing to achieve a satisfactory resolution during the remaining stages of the Bill. Whoever won the Division, the House would have expressed an opinion that would make later changes more difficult or perhaps even impossible. We on these Benches are committed to responsible opposition. In the interests of achieving the right result in the end, we believe that we should not erect procedural barriers to amendments on Report. On that basis, and with a very heavy heart indeed, I shall not be seeking to divide the Committee on this amendment.